The evenings are drawing in, and it’s time to start clearing our backlog of news on casualisation in Australian higher education, and around the world. While we’re at it, hello to our new CASA subscribers, and a cheer to the L H Martin Institute who were very prompt to update the report on their website into contingent academic employment to show CASA as an independent blog. So we’ll start with their report, and we recommend it strongly to readers.
The dilemma that increasing casualisation presents to Australian universities has been summed up in the sector’s coyness about it. This silence has had many consequences: undergraduate students kept largely in the dark about the working conditions of the people teaching them; PhD recruitment evading the question of real career prospects, and increasingly looking like a scheme to develop an academically qualified casual workforce for the future; university administrators managing casualisation as a reputational or quality risk with one hand while at the same time trying to do more of it, and more cheaply, with the other; and activists caught between between trying to end casualisation and trying to improve casual working conditions in the meantime.
This is why we think the LH Martin/AHEIA report is important: it’s a sign that the business end of the sector is starting a new conversation about casualisation, kicking off with a rebrand of the c-word. In this report, contingency covers both fixed-term and hourly paid casual or sessional employment. This provides a better sense of just how much higher education work is done by people with very short-term capacity to make life plans based on reliable income, whose lower superannuation contributions predict later-life financial challenges, and who have no or limited access to leave provisions.
Overall, the report is a really thorough review of the literature on Australian academic casualisation from many sources and over many years, and although the authors claim that it doesn’t turn up anything new, there are some strategic asides to keep an eye on, especially in relation to universities’ public reputation if all this becomes more widely known:
For many Australians, excessive use of casual employment is seen as exploitation. This is particularly the case for young people engaged predominantly as casuals in service sector industries, leading to uncertainty of employment and lesser benefits and career prospects. (15)
The report confirms that we are now at the point where the majority of academics working in Australian universities are contingently hired, and the authors suggest this also means the majority of teaching is delivered by academics hired casually. This means that casualisation is not contingent in any sense of responding flexibly to short-term term hikes in demand. Rather, universities openly plan to service the majority of their teaching casually as “a less costly form of engagement, and without the rigidities and safeguards pertaining to other forms of employment.” (4)
The report is meticulous in covering the tangible and intangible disadvantages faced by less costly academics. These disadvantages are the result of a complex accommodation of casual employment in a sector whose processes and expectations are only slowly catching up to the reality that casual employment is strategic rather than tactical. Some of the disadvantages also rebound on institutions in messy ways. The fact that there is no provision in casual teaching employment for research establishes casual teaching work as a serious negative impact on early career development. But considering how much casual work is done by PhD students and early career post-doctoral academics, this also suggests that a sector-wide strategy for teaching is holding back sector-wide research, and is proving a pretty shabby return on the sector’s investment in research career training.
The report suggests further areas for investigation that all make sense. The boldest recommendation is that systemic casualisation can’t go on expanding or being resisted primarily through the incremental haggling of individual enterprise agreement negotiations between universities and unions. Certainly, as a report co-authored with the national employer association, there’s an element of “they would say that, wouldn’t they?” But for those trapped in the mill of contingency, this is at least a sign that the sector is starting to break the silence about its casualisation problem.
We’re all ready for this to happen.
What else is happening?
One of the issues raised in the L H Martin report is the rise of independent temp agency contractors emerging as labour suppliers for universities. In March we reported that the University of Warwick based Unitemps popped up as a lanyard sponsor for the Universities Australia conference. Alert readers of Stephen Matchett’s daily briefing Campus Morning Mail will also have noticed the tutoring company Your Tutor and Sessions, the sessional employment broker, enjoying cameo roles. What’s at stake here is the rising business cost of managing casual work in-house, and we should expect to see more of it. The state of in-house hiring being what it is—chaotic, improvisational, and thickly blanketed with bureaucratic busywork—it’s not necessarily the case that academics looking for casual work would be worse off in the short term. But universities need to be very careful about promoting ideals like student-centred team-teaching on the one hand, and using call centre models to develop a radically disconnected two-tier academic workforce on the other. And all of us should be asking questions about whether employees of other organisations could enjoy even the minimal protection the NTEU offers its casual members.
What’s happening elsewhere?
We’re delighted to report that the UK Guardian’s Anonymous Academic ‘Working as a casual academic? zip your lip and do as you’re told‘, that was very widely passed around, is by an Australian writer. So if you missed this one, take a look, as it’s from our sector—not from the UK, as we originally thought. And if you’re an academic in secure employment who has ever told a casual staff colleague “that’s just how it is”, maybe read it twice.
In the US, there is increasing attention to the real cost of attending college. What do universities spend their money on? Is it buildings? football coaches? presidential salaries? or those who actually teach? In ‘Academia made Adjuncts the Newest Members of the Lower Class‘, The Huffington Post (not a poster organisation for compensation itself) looks at this from the student perspective, summed up simply:
For now, we can only hope that we don’t end up working for our alma mater when we graduate.
As the northern hemisphere summer approaches, Monica dePaul is blogging her ‘Unemployed Summer‘ experience of in-house hiring and seasonal lay offs:
Each semester, I train another set of future professionals to improve their communication and interpretation skills so that they can survive in the real world, so they can thrive in their personal and professional pursuits, whatever those may be. However, here I am, unemployed yet again, right on schedule. If success is measured in steady employment and financial security after college, then I’m an ironic failure. My job is essentially to train my students to not be like me.
The L H Martin report didn’t find much evidence in the literature that casual work in Australian universities is yet treated as fully competitive recruitment. In the US community college sector, adjuncts go through a full interview process. An article this week on how to succeed in interviewing for adjunct work drew some feisty responses in the comments.
The problem with a “positive and refreshing” article giving advice to interviewees for part-time jobs is that it further contributes to the normalization of such part-time work, and it feeds into the false idea that these jobs are a pathway to better terms of employment (rather than a replacement of those terms of employment). Most people “fresh out of graduate school” are looking for a career that will allow them to build a life for themselves and their families. The fact that all you have to offer them is part-time work with dubious advancement prospects is not something that calls for a refreshingly happy and positive take.
That’s got the backlog moving! Thanks for sharing the news around your networks, and we’ll be back as soon as we can.
Karina and Kate